An Account of an Ancient Pilgrimage destination connected with the Legend of the Ganga’s Rebirth !
If one were to travel along the Ganga from Munger to Bhagalpur, both in Bihar, a prominent rocky island, seen in the close vicinity of a rocky hill on the banks, is sure to attract attention. Mysterious in appearance with remnants of sculptures from the distant past, which are visible from a distance, it stands as a mute witness to the turbulences of time, being located near the vast remains of an ancient city, which even forgot and lost its original nomenclature in due course. Now known as Sultanganj, it perhaps serves as one of the best examples of continuity, since, having faced tremendous adversities, it still managed to retain its ancient status as a favoured pilgrimage destination, though only with vestiges of the past splendour, believed to have originated due to its association with the legend of the Ganga’s rebirth. My fascination with the ancient remains at the site dates back to the the early months of 2005, when, as a young Indian Police Service (IPS) probationer, I had been posted for District Practical Training in Bhagalpur. In those nostalgic days, learning the various dimensions of field policing was the first and foremost task in my mind, since the time available seemed less and many concepts had to be assimilated deep within, for survival through the long years of police service ahead. However, as I toured around in the vicinity, successive encounters with considerable ancient remains lying almost unattended at several places in the region, always attracted my attention towards them.
|Jahngira Island during Shravani Mela before construction of Foot-Bridge (Source – Shashi Shanker, Photojournalist from Bhagalpur)|
During all my journeys from Bhagalpur towards Munger or beyond to Begusarai or Patna, whenever I crossed Sultanganj, I wanted to explore the mysterious rocky island, atop which a temple, named as Ajgaibinath, existed, and, of which I had once seen a photograph in a text on the history of Bihar. I could see that it was visible even from a significant distance along with the remains of some beautiful images sculpted upon various gigantic rocks. The hill was then approached by a small boat from the ghat where also existed another hillock, popularly known as ‘Murli Pahari’ (earlier ‘Baiskaran’, interpreted as Vyasa Karna by Dr. R C P Singh) upon which existed an old mosque amidst several similar ancient remains. As I looked at the magnificence of the site from a distance, I wanted to plan a detailed visit, whenever the opportunity would afford itself, only to explore it from the perspective of its heritage. It was in January, 2005, itself that I had first intended to plan a boat ride to the island within the river, but, due to paucity of time, it could not then materialise. In April, 2005, as I got posted to Kahalgaon as the Officer-in- Charge of the Police Station for three months, I was fortunate enough to find some spare time to visit some of the widely scattered remains in the vicinity1. However, even as I could briefly tour the eastern part of the district, exploration of the western side, which included Sultanganj, remained as a desideratum.
|Jahngira (J D Beglar, ASI Reports, Volume XV)
Accordingly, on 28th March, I firstly reached the base of Kherhi hill, situated within the busy marketplace at Shahkund, otherwise a sleepy town. After a strenuous climb, I reached the remains located atop, which on a closer analysis seemed to represent a temple site of utmost religious sanctity in the ancient past. The remnants of sculptures and damaged inscriptions, which left me mesmerised thinking about the faith of those pilgrims who had left their marks in the past, clearly indicated that an esteemed religious centre was flourishing there at least since the Gupta times, and had sometime later been abruptly sacked and destroyed. As I shall be writing in detail about Kherhi in another account, I shall presently continue with my account of the remains at Sultanganj. As I descended after exploring Kherhi, sunset was drawing close, and my mind was immersed in thoughts about the interconnection of such scattered historical sites in the close vicinity of Champa (capital of the ancient Anga Mahajanpada, with remains at Nathnagar, Bhagalpur).
As vehicles started moving towards the coveted rocks at Sultanganj, I inquired about the contemporary road conditions, which had been quite dismal in the past. I was astonished to learn that while the road conditions had considerably improved, other changes were probably even more pronounced and in fact so much so that vehicles could now even approach the otherwise ‘unapproachable rocky island’, during the dry season, since river waters had drifted probably due to gradual siltation following the construction of a bridge for pedestrians by the State Government (sometime probably around 2007). Built for approach to the Ajgaibinath temple from the mainland by devotees who assembled in large numbers during the rainy season, the new construct struck me as a surprise since on earlier occasions, the paucity of time for organising a boat trip, which was expected to take not less than an hour and half or even more, had always prevented me from having approached the rocks. With the mind immersed in such thoughts, I gradually realised that the group of vehicles had already passed through a crowded marketplace and was approaching the erstwhile rocky ‘island’. It finally halted at the steps marking the entrance to the Ajgaibinath temple, located atop and still maintained by a traditional seat of Mahants, at least since the Mughal times.
|Ancient Sculptures under threat of survival, Riverside, Jahngira|
|Newly Constructed Bridge for Pedestrian usage|
As I disembarked from the vehicle and approached the ancient rock boulders, with the main temple structure constructed upon the summit, I was aghast to discover that survival of past remnants at the site seemed to be in great danger as rock boulders containing ancient sculptures and even inscriptions were being covered and defaced by upcoming modern constructions. As I approached the rock face on the north, lying on the river side of the main stairway, I noticed a large platform being constructed with sand being filled within walls of concrete so as to create more space for the construction of structures to be rented out for running shops and commercial establishments by the temple management. At the bottom of one such construct which was soon supposed to be filled up with sand in order to extend the existing platform, an ancient sculpture of Surya on a rock boulder could be prominently noticed. Several locals who had by then approached after having seen me entering the temple premises along with several other police personnel, on being asked informed that many more of such sculpted boulders including one bearing the image of the Goddess Ganga (also noted and sketched by Cunningham for his report in 1879), had already been either covered or damaged by the temple management pressed with the ever-growing need of increasing the sources of finance for the temple and probably for other purposes as well, by way of filling and raising the land around the earlier island for accommodating more shops and commercial establishments, which could provide fixed rents.
|Threatened Ancient Sculpture of Surya, Jahngira|
|Tilted Sculpture of Ganga as seen by Cunningham (The Sculpture has now been covered under sand by the Temple Authorities looking for more space for commercial/residential establishment. The now threatened sculpture of Surya is seen in the background|
From the pace of the ongoing constructional activity, it seemed that the ancient sculpted panels on the rock would soon get buried within the sands over which newly created space would become available for commercial activities and for the accommodation of pilgrims and temple personnel. At that time, as I lamented upon the ignorant destruction of precious ancient heritage, I also advised the local police officers accompanying me to keep a watch on the constructional activities and to discuss issues related to the preservation of past heritage with the temple administration. However, glancing upon the disinterested looks of one from the Mahant’s establishment, I truly felt within the core of my heart, that the survival of what I was witnessing was only a matter of probably a few more years. Anyway, with a pained mind, I decided to explore the site in detail and also to extensively photograph it for proper documentation and further research. During my visit, since there was no water in the part of the river close to the erstwhile ghat (bank), owing to heavy siltation, the foot bridge was of no practical usage since even vehicles could reach the erstwhile island directly. However, the bridge was stated as critical during the monsoon for providing entry into the temple to the scores of pilgrims who visited on a daily basis.
|Surya Sculpture saved due to my sudden visit|
- 1 Importance and Sanctity of the Site
- 2 Historical Accounts
- 3 Ancient Sculptures on the Rock Face
- 4 Unresolved Sculpture of a Resting Lady or ‘Sadyojata’
- 5 Mosque
- 6 Remains of the Buddhist Monastery
- 7 Karngarh
- 8 The Antiquity of Sultanganj –
- 9 Remains at Jahngira
- 10 Sultanganj as a Tourist Destination
Importance and Sanctity of the Site
The traditional importance of the site lies in the fact that the river Ganga here becomes ‘Uttarvahini’ i.e. takes a turn to the north towards Mount Kailasa (the abode of Lord Shiva), a deviation from its general course towards the south. Since such sites are very uncommon, they are specially regarded as sacred and are often visited by pilgrims for religious ceremonies, especially on important days. However, among such Uttarvahini sites, Sultanganj, with its rocky island historically referred as Jahngira, has been of enormous sanctity. Buchanan in his report observed that there must have been some peculiar reason2 which made it the most frequented of the three such sites in the vicinity (other two being at Munger and Kahalgaon), even when the circumstance of the river running northward was not as well defined or remarkable as at the other two. Later, Cunningham also noted it as being the most holy and frequented of the three sites in the vicinity.
In my opinion, the reason for such sanctity may not be far to seek and can surely be gauged from its nomenclature, believed to have been derived from Rishi Jahnu, associated in Hindu mythology with the story of rebirth of the river Ganga, which is also thus addressed as ‘Jahnavi’, or the daughter of Jahnu3. The ancient story mentions that the river, initially on her way to the ocean, on the route charted by the legendary sage Bhagirath, by the rush of her currents, had unknowingly interrupted Rishi Jahnu’s meditation, who suddenly became so enraged that he swallowed the whole incoming waters in a gulp with all his acquired miraculous powers. Bhagirath, having secured the river from heaven for its earthly course was deeply shocked and had to pray upon Jahnu for her release, and it was only upon such intercession, that the river was later released and thus reborn.
|Sculptures on the Riverside Rock Face|
As can be appreciated, the rocks at Sultanganj, being the first such encountered within the Ganga on its course towards the sea after descent from the Himalayas into the plains at Haridwar, become the natural location for presuming any events related to the legend. Apart from association with the legend of the river’s rebirth, another reason for fame among Uttarvahini sites, could be it’s location in close proximity to the temple of Lord Ravaneshwar Mahadev i.e. Baba Baidyanath Dham at Deoghar (Jharkhand), which owes its origin to a legend4 associated with Ravan, the Lankan ruler and is one of the most sacred 12 Jyotirlingams of Lord Shiva.
The tradition of pilgrimage from Sultanganj to Deoghar is known to have existed since long and can still be witnessed in full exuberance during the Shravan month of the Hindu calendar (generally during July & August) every year, when millions of pilgrims from India and abroad, called as ‘kanwariyas’ and dressed in saffron outfits, congregate for collection of Gangajal (holy water) at the river’s banks and thereafter journey, mostly on foot, about 110 km, perhaps the longest such fair, to shower upon the sacred lingam in Deoghar, where the temple is historical and confirmed to have existed since5 at least the 15th century A.D., by J. D. Beglar in his report for the Archaeological Survey of India (1871-72), and by R. L. Mitra (1883). With the devotees continuously chanting ‘Bol Bam’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’, this annual assemblage of faith, creates a unique scene, which if probably photographed from above would represent two rivers – one of the marine form flowing from Gangotri into the Bay of Bengal and the other of saffron human form flowing continuously from Sultanganj to Deoghar.
In the absence of any accurate information even in the Puranic legends, the first historical mention of the rocky hillocks is probably found in the records left behind by Abdul Latif, son of Abdullah Abbasi, an inhabitant of Ahmedabad (Gujarat), who, in 1608 A.D., had accompanied his patron Abul Hassan (the father-in-law of Shah Jahan), then appointed as the diwan of Bengal, on a river trip from Agra to Raj Mahal and on the way back from Rajmahal to Ghorghat. On 18th May, 1608, he had visited the rocky island, termed by him as ‘Mashan’, and observed that the village was situated half a kos from the river, and was an ordinary place “but it has two hillocks, one in the midst of the river and the other on the bank, facing each other, so that there are few places on earth equalling it in airiness. How can I describe the charm of its mornings and evenings and the beauty of its moonly nights, which exhilarate the spirit and freshen the life of man. On the hillock by the river’s edge, a pious man has built a beautiful mosque. For the last 30 years a dervish has been engaged in prayer here. A room has also been built for drinking water (abdari). What a charming retreat, no better can be found for the darvish.”
|Poor State of Preservation of the Ancient Sculptures (Riverside, Jahngira)|
The accounts of Buchanan remain invaluable since he freely documented and interpreted whatever he witnessed according to his experience and understanding. Interestingly, Sultanganj is mentioned as being the largest town of the then division with about 250 houses, having a good deal of trade under “Thanah Kumurgunj”, the concurrent name of which has been mentioned to have originated from “the Kangwar, or pots suspended from a pole, that are used for carrying water in pilgrimages.” A village named Kamarganj still exists near Sultanganj, which confirms the ancient tradition of pilgrimage and may also be of significance in tracing the original name of the site. Buchanan reached the ‘curious rocky hills’, after traversing about 2.5 miles, passing first through Kumurgunj, which he stated as “occupied by invalids, shopkeepers and retailers of Tari, who lived by supplying passengers”, and noticed 3 or 4 “wretched huts” at the end of the town, where lived Goalas from Katak, who played with snakes and danced to a kind of bag-pipe, indicating the presence of a Sapera community. He described the hills as consisting of a fine granite, reddish felspar, little white quartz and much black mica, with Jahngira, or the “Fakir’s rock”, “not as large as any of the three islands at Kahalgaon was separated from another hill of the same materials, now belonging to the Muhammedan saint, by a branch of the Ganges, perhaps 400 yards wide.”
|Sacred Lingam of Ajgaibinath|
|Murali Hill as viewed from Ajgaibinath, Jahngira|
Importantly, Buchanan’s account confirms that the tradition of annual pilgrimage predated the establishment of the Ajgaibinath temple by Harinath, ascribed to around 1500 A.D. by Cunningham, upon analysis of Buchanan’s account and speculation of an average tenure for the 12 earlier Mahants. Importantly, Cunningham’s date seems to tally with the same time-frame around 1498 A.D., when another Mahant named as Gosain Ghamandi Giri, established his Matha amidst the ruins at Bodh Gaya. It is probable that during these turbulent times, various Dasnami Sanyasis, who were roaming and preaching around in different regions of Bihar and Bengal, gradually took up abodes in such places, which were earlier esteemed for religious sanctity, but which had been rendered desolate following repeated incursions by foreign invaders. The ancient tradition of pilgrimage at the site, however, seems as having remained unaffected, being still quite popular in Buchanan’s times, as he remarked “At the three usual full moons, from twenty to thirty thousand persons may in all attend to bathe”, and that “the great emolument of the priests arises from about 50,000 pilgrims who at various times come to carry away a load of water which they intend to pour on the heads of various celebrated images in distant parts. In the south of India I have met pilgrims carrying their load from this place, but by far the greater part goes to Devghar in Virbhum, where it is poured on the Priapus or Lingga called Baidyanath, to whom this water, taken from a scene of former pleasure, is considered as peculiarly acceptable.”
|Condition of the Ancient Sculptures near the Sanctum Sanctorum|
Digambar, the Mahanta, seems to have been truly humble, as he fairly admitted before Buchanan that his community was not very knowledgeable and that apart from “the art of begging”, the utmost stretch of science they possessed was the ability to chant some mantras (forms of prayer), which interestingly, none of them understood. Being followers of “Sankara Acharji”, their buildings were all dedicated to Shiva. Even as they denied any knowledge of the state of the island prior to the arrival of their first Mahanta, Buchanan mentioned that it was clearly evident that the place had previously been of religious sanctity since there existed vast numbers of engravings of very great antiquity which represented various personages “received by all sects of Hindus as distinguished beings, among which I observed Parasuram, Narayan and Lakshmi, Ananta sleeping on a snake, with the goose of Brahma flying over him, Krishna and Radha, Narasingha, Ganes, Hanuman, and Siva”. Below the buildings of the Sanyasis, he noticed a small temple dedicated to Parasnath, the 23rd teacher of the sect of Jains, and was informed by the Sanyasis that Baidyanath had given orders prohibiting Jain worship on his sacred rock. He interpreted that the Sanyasis had stopped the practice of Jaina worship at the site, but, however also mentioned that “Some Jains however, I am told, still come privately to this place. The temple of this sect, now standing, seems evidently to be a very modern work, the authority of the Sannyasis having probably been unable until lately to expel the heretics.”
Later, Cunningham also witnessed the congregation of pilgrims during the “full moon of Magh, near the end of February, 1879.” and noted “For three whole days the people were arriving from all quarters, in a continuous stream all day long, and for two days afterwards all the roads were thronged with people carrying away vessels of water of the Ganges from Jahngira ghat. Most of these people were going to the famous shrine of Baijnath at Deogarh in the Birbhum district. I estimated the number of pilgrims at from 40 to 50 thousand.” He mentioned that the name Gebinath and Ajgebinath, meant “formed by nature” and that formerly it was called “Anadnath”. He noted that the pile of granite rocks rose up boldly from the water to a height of 70 to 80 feet in gigantic masses, only slightly separated from each other by narrow fissures and surrounded at the base by huge blocks rounded by the weather. Many of the blocks undermined by the river had slipped from their original places, as proved by the sloping positions of some of the sculptures, which was especially noticeable in the standing figure of the Ganga, which was then about 38 degrees out of the perpendicular, and as noted above, has now been buried within the sand. During his visit, there was only one safe landing place on the south side, from which a steep flight of rough steps led to the top.
|Ancient Sculptures amidst Modern Constructions, Jahngira|
Ancient Sculptures on the Rock Face
|A view as one descends from Ajgaibinath|
As I started exploring the sculptures on the rock boulder facing the river, above which a part of the modern temple has been constructed, the damage caused from a perennial discharge of waters from within the temple apart from that due to a compilation of garbage to the ancient sculptures, was quite noticeable. However, even despite the ongoing damage, the existing specimens still did retain much of their former charm which was felt more at the time when the golden rays of the sun seemed to be infusing radiance, as seen in the photograph taken just before sunset. On a cursory look, the multitude of sculptures represented various deities engaged in different emotions varying from hunting to love and worship, and whether all these were sculpted together or at different points of time and whether they were originally intended to together convey any particular episode in mythology was not clear from their abrupt placement and even repetition of images of the same deities at several places. They represent mostly Hindu deities, both Saiva and Vaishnava, and some also carry inscriptions.
|Sculpture on the riverside, Jahngira|
On an initial look, I felt that the sculptures appeared more plastic than those at Patharghata (referred in the article on Vikramshila6), and thus felt that they could be from the early Gupta period, considering an increase in elasticity and better depiction of emotions on stone with the passage of time. Later, however, I discovered that most scholars too had initially ascribed all the sculptures to the Gupta period; but later dated some to the Gupta period and others to the post Gupta period, with only the Sheshashayi and Varaha Vishnu together with another few small figures in the rock, being assigned an early attribution7. In such case, it may not appear surprising as to why the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa Hian and Hieun Tsang failed to mention this prominent site, which, however, still remains so due to presence of the large but again unmentioned Buddhist monastery in the vicinity and thus the reason for skipping the site could have been since this was almost an exclusive Hindu monument, which thus may have received their scant attention. The numerous sculptures include only two representations of the Buddha, of which, according to Cunningham, one may represent the Buddha incarnation of Vishnu8.
|Buddha at Jahngira|
Cunningham assigned it to 2nd or 3rd century A.D., while later Bloch assigned a date around 7th or 8th century A.D. From the nearby remains at Kherhi Hill9, it is evident that artists in the region were quite active during the late 5th to 6th century A.D., and have left behind various ancient sculptures including that of a superbly carved Narasimha Vishnu10 in dark grey stone on the west side of the hill. Singh opined that even as Jahngira was adorned with a few carvings in the Gupta period, it was elaborately embellished probably in the 8th century A.D., to such an extent that hardly any part of the surface remained without sculptures.
|Sheshashayi Vishnu (Jahngira)|
Apart from the prominent figure of Revanta, the northern rock-face has a multitude of sculptures depicting different deities. Further, as one ascends the steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum of Ajgaibinath, and thereafter descends along a different series of steps, a whole multitude of sculptures is witnessed all along. Among these sculptures, Lord Vishnu is represented either in the well known Chaturbhuj (four-armed) form as standing with the Ayudhapurushas or in the form of one of his several incarnations like Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana and Parasurama. A chamber encountered immediately as one descends contains Vishnu depicted in the Sheshashayi form, stated to be of earlier date (probably from the late 5th or early 6th century), as against most other sculptures dated to the 8th century A.D. In the Puranic story of creation, as the creator is engaged in eternal yoga, demons Madhu and Kaitabha, also just born, threaten the new born Brahma, but are ultimately slayed by Vishnu himself. The scene is poetically described by Kalidasa in Raghuvansha with personified figures of Gada and Chakra, Garuda, as attending the Lord, whose feet are being shampooed by Goddess Lakshmi. An elaborate description under the name of Padmanabha also exists in the Vishnudharmottara shastra.
|Chaturbhuj Vishnu and Surya (Jahngira)|
Among the imposing sculptures, is a befittingly bejewelled standing image of four-armed Vishnu, carrying an un-blossomed lotus in the upper right hand and a conch shell in the corresponding left. The two lower hands are placed over the personified figures of the gada, being a female figure in tribhanga pose and identified by a part of mace extended over the head, on the right and the chakra, represented by a male figure with his right hand upraised and the left in kartyavalambita pose on the left. According to canonical works, Vishnu should have one face and four arms, of which one of the right should carry a fully bloomed lotus with the other placed on the head of personified female figure of gada (Gada Devi) and one of the left should carry a conch while the other should be placed on the Chakrapurusha, depicted ornamented (sarvabharanabhusitah) with a big belly (lambodarah) and with eyes well open as in dancing. The Earth- goddess should be portrayed between the legs of Vishnu. Thus, the Vishnu figure from Jahngira substantially tallies in iconographic details, the only important deviation being the absence of the Earth-goddess. In the opinion of S Sahai, the sculpture belonged to the Gupta period since it compared well with an early Gupta stucco figure from Rajgir and with those from Mathura and Udayagiri in terracotta and stone respectively. However, Asher, ascribed it to the 8th century A.D.
Very few sculptures at Jahngira are stated to be contemporary with the Sheshashayi Vishnu. Of special importance, however, is a fine sculpture of two armed Varaha (the Boar incarnation) showing similar vitality, and also significantly placed just above the river waters and representing the deity in the form of a boar having plucked the earth from the waters below. With left leg resting upon the coils of the Sheshanaga and the right planted on the earth in a slanting position, the human bust of the cosmic serpent with hood canopy is represented between the legs of varaha, as touching his feet with both hands. The two armed figure of uplifted Bhudevi is shown seated on his left shoulder in an elegant pose, taking support of slightly tilted up muzzle with her right hand, and holding an indistinct object in her left. The image is soberly adorned with vanamala and wristlets, and with bodily proportions having the rhythm of feminine elegance.
Narasimha is represented as four-armed in the pratyalidha pose, with the right leg placed slantingly on the ground and the left being on the throne upon which is placed demon Hiranyakashyap’s loose body with his belly being torn by the lower pair of his hands, while the two upper hands are represented as pulling own hair in a gesture of wrath and anger. The figure is adorned with Vanamala, necklace and bhujabandha and a girdle is seen round the waist supporting the lower end of the drapery. With the modelling of the figure being crude and rough, it is generally placed in the late medieval period.
Wearing yajnopavita and dhoti with folds gathered in between the legs, Parasurama is represented with a heavy jata on the head and as two- armed in the samapadasthanaka pose, with the right hand in the Varada- mudra, and the left holding a parasu, placed on the waist (Katyalambita). The interesting figure is different from canonical norms, which prescribe a battle axe in the left hand with the right in a pointing gesture. Further, even though Parasurama is invariably shown as two armed in the dasavtara panels, it has been suggested that separate figures of him should be endowed with four arms. The modelling of the figure is, however, neither balanced nor proportionate.
|Shiva Parvati (Jahngira)|
Close to the four-armed figures of Vishnu, one notices a standing four- armed image of Ardhanarisvara Shiva in the tribhanga pose, with the right lower hand carrying a rosary and the upper holding a battle-axe trident intertwined by a serpent. The front left hand of the female half is bent and placed on the waist holding a mirror, while the lower probably holds an object which appears to be a lotus. With a halo behind the head, a Jata on the right side and properly groomed hair on the left side, a well wrought necklace adorns the neck. The male half of the body is draped from the waist to the knee only, while the female one from the waist to much below the knee. The figure has been assigned to a comparatively later date13 in the Pala period14; but Dr Singh, on stylistic consideration, mentioned that it seemed to belong to the Gupta tradition and may be safely placed in the post-Gupta epoch.
|Shiva Parvati, Ancient Inscriptions near Murali Hill|
|Sculpture of Surya (Jahngira), under threat of survival|
Another prominent sculpture is the now threatened standing figure of Surya in a chariot, which is a more elaborate conception than single figures attended only by Danda and Pingala found elsewhere in Bihar. Represented standing in the samabhanga pose with upraised hands holding fully blossomed lotus flowers by their stalks, he is putting up a Kuluta, and has a dagger hanging on his left side, the hilt and other parts of which are clearly visible. He is accompanied by his two attendants Danda and Pingala, the two female archers Usha and Pratyusha and his charioteer, the legless Aruna, besides two more female attendants standing on his either side. In the sculpture are also seen the single wheel and the seven horses of the chariot beneath. The sculpture is suggested by Asher as being more similar to images from Bengal than from Magadha. Apart from this, there are several other images of Surya too on different boulders. Under the prominent figure of Surya exists an inscription in two lines “in well-formed characters of the early Gupta period” recording a pious gift of one chihadantta15.
|Surya and Vishnu (Jahngira)|
Sculptures on and near the Murali Hill
After examining the sculptures on the erstwhile island, when I was moving out of the temple premises, my attention was immediately drawn towards various surrounding boulders, most of them being located near the adjoining hill named Murali Pahari or Bais Karan (Vyasa Karna) protruding into the river from the mainland and presently distinguished by a mosque on the summit. Similar to the sculptures and inscriptions on the rocks in the island, these boulders facing the river are also covered with sculptures and inscriptions. The name Bais-Karan is believed to have derived from its association with King Karna of the local tradition (also remembered at nearby Karngarh and at the main Karngadh in Champanagar apart from another Karngadh within the Fort premises at Munger16. The significance of ‘Bais’ is however, not confirmed so far and Dr R C P Singh indicated the name as originating from ‘Vyasa Karna’.
|Rock Boulder near Murali Hill with Chisel Marks|
The Rare ‘Rudra Pada’ !
|The Rudra Pada|
Just below the Murali hill, exists a neglected but massive rock boulder which has the potential of transforming the identity of the site for popular tourism. The reason for such potential is since among various sculpted panels on its face containing different images of Shiva and other deities, it has a unique sculpture, a representation of the foot prints of Shiva, which is probably not found elsewhere, with an inscription below, in boldly cut Gupta age (4th/5th Century AD) letters, which was also noted by Cunningham, who read it as ‘Rudra Mahalaya’ or ”Rudra-mahala’ and thus called it as ‘Rudrapada’. It seems that in the past, this particular rock boulder, which has a Shiva Linga sculpted on the top facing the sky, may actually have been associated with some legend regarding the footprints of Lord Shiva, which has probably been lost and remains unknown. That the site had been surely popular in the Gupta times is clear from the existence of inscriptions not only on the Rudrapada, but also on other sculptures including one under a large head in a niche “in beautifully formed Gupta characters”, and reading as “Kumarasya17”, and under another figure in two lines of Gupta characters reading “Dedharmmayam Vahakasya (i.e. a pious gift of Vahaka)18”. Bloch summarily mentioned two of these inscriptions as belonging to the 7th or 8th century and nothing further. Later, D. R. Patil mentioned that the inscriptions had not been noticed or transcribed further. However, during my visit in 2016, I could notice and closely photograph two of these inscriptions.
|The Historic Rudrapada lies in utter neglect !|
The boulder remains in utter neglect, having been forgotten today not only by the modern tourist but also by the pious pilgrims, who throng the nearby temple and ghats during the month of Shravan, without paying heed to what was once historically acknowledged and inscribed as being the footprint of Shiva. I wondered that if the significance of the inscribed site was known to the general public, then there might have been tremendous interest, but due to ignorance, it remained so utterly neglected, that it was actually being used for the purpose of drying out cow-dung cakes by some local resident. What a pity for a site with such unique heritage ! At that time itself, I wished that my efforts through the blog would help to create better awareness about the site and restore some semblance in order to protect it from unscrupulous selfish interests.
|The Rudra Pada Rock viewed from above|
Unresolved Sculpture of a Resting Lady or ‘Sadyojata’
An interesting sculpture of a resting lady exists on a boulder near Murali hillock, which was described by Cunningham as “lying on a bed with her head resting on her left hand and her right hand holding a bunch of flowers, which a monkey is snatching away.” D. R. Patil mentions that this figure may have been the female devil or Rakshasi mentioned by Buchanan as “surrounded by the heads of her daughters.” A further study of the representations was found necessary by Patil. Buchanan has referred to a sculpture representing “a Priapus (Linga) supported by nymphs (Nayikas)”, which does not seem to have been noticed by Cunningham. As I examined the sculpture closely, I felt that it was definitely trying to represent some ancient story, but, inquiries with some local scholars at Sultanganj resulted in various descriptions including some mentioning it as being Yakshini and her associates, some others claiming it as being the Goddess Parvati, while some others as representing Sita, with Hanuman being the monkey and the Rakshasis of Lanka being represented by the heads around.
|Unresolved Sculpture from a distance|
The sculpture nevertheless is well executed on stone and commands attention from a significant distance. I could get no conclusive answer immediately and had been wondering till I read an article published in “Anga Sanskriti – Vividh Ayaam” by Dr O P Pandey, previously the curator of Bhagalpur Museum and had a discussion with him. Dr Pandey has identified the sculpture as representing ‘Sadyojata’, a just born form of Rudra, described in the Vishnu Purana and Srimad Bhagwat and represented in the form of a mother and new born son. Dr Pandey has mentioned that such statues were prevalent in Bihar and Bengal around the 8th century and one such has also been found at Vikramshila from the 9th/10th century. In the article he estimated the Sadyojata at Murali Pahari to be earlier and from the 6th/7th century, which, however, upon discussion, was resolved as surely being the handiwork of the Gupta artist with almost the same date as the inscribed Rudrapada.
|Unresolved Sculpture or Sadyojata|
On the Murli hillock, a mutilated sculpture represents four-armed Vishnu, seated on the shoulders of Garuda, with the lower pair of his hands, holding something indistinct and resting upon the corresponding thighs. One of his upper hands is placed on a standing male figure to the left and the other on the standing female figure to the right. The two- armed figure of Garuda with a snake encircled around the neck is depicted with the right leg resting on the ground and the left knee raised upwards. The sculpture, however, has not partly followed canonical injunctions, as laid in Vishnudharmottara, in which Vishnu seated on Garuda should be represented with four faces and eight arms, but has depicted the Garuda as per rules, according to which, when carrying Vishnu on his back, should not depict more than two hands, both of which should be holding the feet of the Lord. According to A. K. Maitra (Rupam, No. 1, Jan, 1920) ‘an agreeable humanised form’ of Garuda is the development of the later medieval period. The Sultanganj sculpture of Vishnu on Garuda, on consideration of artistic style, is suggested as being from the late medieval period in view of the completely humanised form of Garuda. Another sculpture on a boulder faced just below the hill depicts Vishnu in his Vamana avatar, with raised legs as if extending itself in a position to measure the entire universe.
|Damaged Sculpture of Vishnu near Murali Hill|
|Sculptures on a boulder near Murali Hill|
|Rock Boulder near Murali Hill|
|Vamana Avtar on the Murali Hill|
Atop Murali hill, on a brick-built platform exists an old Jami Masjid, with the platform supported by a retaining wall facing the river. From its conspicuous position amidst Hindu ruins, it is supposed to represent the site of another ancient Hindu Temple or Buddhist Stupa, not clearly described by Cunningham, who assigned it to around 1500 AD from its Pathan style of architecture. Bloch, who referred to the mosque with “the curved Bengali battlement, the only instance of this style which I know of outside Bengal proper”, mentioned that underneath that mosque was once the site of “a large Buddhist stupa”, but, however, no grounds of such conclusion were documented.
|Mosque on the top of Murali Hill|
Remains of the Buddhist Monastery
Apart from the sculpted rocks, there are several other antiquarian remains at Sultanganj including but not limited to a mound called Karngarh, first noticed by Buchanan and the vast remains of a Buddhist Monastery, first documented by Babu Rajendra Lala Mitra. The Monastery, which seems to have escaped the attention of Buchanan, was discovered in 1861-62, sometime before Mitra’s visit, in 1864, since at that time construction of the railway line was going on and a very large portion of the mound had been dug away to provide brick ballast for many miles of the new track. While at the time of Buchanan’s survey, forty years ago, Sultanganj contained about 250 houses, of which only two were brick-built and three tiled, by Mitra’s time, the number of houses had quintupled, and the main road in front of the mart was lined by many pucca godowns.
|Copper Sculpture of Buddha from Sultanganj in Birmingham Museum (Source -Wikipedia)|
|Harris with the then discovered Colossal Copper Buddha Statue (Source – Wikipedia)|
At the middle of this long ridge of rubbish, Mr. Harris found the foundation and the side pillars of a large gateway which was evidently one of the principal entrances to the quadrangle. Similar gateways probably once existed on the other three sides, but their vestiges were no longer traceable. The accumulation of rubbish at the south-east corner was greater than any where else, and on it was situated his bungalow. The chambers excavated at the south-western side were not all of the same dimensions and measured within the walls from 12’x10’6” to 14’x12’. The depth from the top of the plinth to the lowest part of the foundation (the only portion now in situ) was 13 feet, with the upper floors having openings or hatchways through which people descended to the bottom, and used the different stories as cellars or store-rooms. No valuable property or remains of corn or other goods were, however, traced in these cellars, as most probably they had been removed before the monastery fell into the hands of the destroyer. The interiors of the walls had never been plastered, but the front, facing the courtyard, had a thick coating of sand and stucco such as were not to be seen in then contemporaneous Indian houses.
|Copper Statue as sketched in Mitra’s report|
|Stone Sculpture of Buddha from Sultanganj in British Museum (Source -Wikipedia)|
At present, hardly anyone in Sultanganj seems aware of the site where excavations had brought to light the remains of such a wonderful monastery. The area around the railway station and the market have become much overcrowded with buildings and structures, fundamentally different from the town which was seen by Buchanan in 1811 or by Mitra in 1864. Sultanganj is a very crowded place which doesn’t seem to have even a foothold during the monsoons when pilgrims throng the narrow lanes and alleys of the marketplace and the surroundings of the railway station. As I could not gather much during inquiries from some local residents, in order to ascertain the current status of the site, I tasked the Officer-in-charge of the Police Station to consult some learned persons in the locality who had some interest in ancient Indian history and archaeology. I was astonished the next morning to find three antiquarians from Sultanganj in my office including Mr. Sankar Sah, about whom I shall be subsequently mentioning. From them I learnt that the site where the stupa and the vihara had been found still existed in the form of a low land or cavity near the old railway station, where now existed a railway godown (malgodam). I took the opportunity to visit Sultanganj Railway station as I was leaving Bhagalpur, after my transfer to Patna, in order to check if any relic connected to the Stupa or monastery still survived, but, however, was disappointed to see that nothing remained at the site, though may still be lying buried within, which, however, could be explored only through another excavation.
The Antiquity of Sultanganj –
Remains at Jahngira
Close to Sultanganj, on the road towards Munger, is the village Jahngira, which having yielded historical relics, has signs of having been inhabited since the most ancient times and still contains a lot buried within for the explorer. I visited the banks of the Ganga at Jahngira and met Mr. Shankar Sah, who, was then posted with the local post office and has now retired from service, but, remains a famous collector of ancient relics found from time to time whenever the Ganga recedes after the floods from its banks touching the village. With his assistance, I could see the sequences in time of human habitation on the banks of the Ganga which had been exposed by the river during annual flooding. From amongst the sequences visible, potsherds of Northern Black Polished Ware (600 BC to 200 BC) and others could be seen and collected. A few terracotta ring wells of about the Mauryan to Kushana (3rd Century BC to 1st Century AD) could also be seen across the banks of the Ganga.
|Banks of the Ganga at Jahngira Village|
|Collection of Mr. Shankar Sah, Jahngira Village|
|Collection of Mr. Shankar Sah, Jahngira Village|
It was nice to learn that Mr. Sah has been regularly collecting such relics after the annual floods and has also contributed to the museums at Bhagalpur and Munger. I revisited him on 5th January, 2020, on the way back from Bhagalpur after my transfer, and was pleased to see a newly discovered stone image along with coins and other relics. The site surely is a surviving indication of the antiquity of the region, which must have been of utmost importance in ancient times.
|Civilisational Sequences seen after the floods on the banks of the Ganga at Jahngira Village|
Sultanganj remains an important pilgrimage destination for the Hindus, even as the original legends related to the placement of the various rock sculptures seem to have been forgotten. From the inscription of Rudrapada and various sculptures of Shiva, it is evident that the site was of special significance for Shaivite worship in ancient times. The same is confirmed from the ancient tradition of pilgrimage which predated the present temple of Ajgaibinath, as mentioned by Buchanan. The reason for the special significance of the site could surely be due to its association in tradition with the legend of Rishi Jahnu. The legend of Ganga’s rebirth may also explain the adornment of the rock boulders with various sculptures representing not only Shiva, but also various other deities including incarnations of Vishnu, Surya and his son Revanta, and others. Since the Mahants themselves were not aware about the actual ancient significance of the site, Buchanan had felt a strong disconnect and attributed the hill originally to some other religion than the ones found to be in present possession. Babu Rajendra Lala Mitra too surmised the Ajgaibinath temple as being not more than two or three centuries old, since it bore no inscription and judging, from its make and appearance, and that the site was quite ancient.
|Sculptures within small chambers at Jahngira|
From the vast remains excavated, it is also clearly seen that Sultanganj was also the seat of an important Buddhist establishment since ancient times, and once had a large stupa of considerable probable sanctity. Several historical antiquities keep regularly surfacing from in and around Sultanganj as evident from the report in the Hindusthan Standard (Delhi Edition) of May, 23, 1960, mentioning that some labourers “while digging a well last week near a place of worship at Sultanganj unearthed a small golden statue of Goddess Saraswati, two gold coins, a nose ring, an armlet and a gold ring, all stated to belong to the Gupta period”, and many others. In 1990-91, a stone image of the Buddha, sitting in the padmasana and exhibiting the vyakhyana mudra, in black stone, was discovered during chance digging while laying the railway track. All these regular finds along with the antiquarian remains discussed above surely indicate that the place must have been quite important in ancient times. It is indeed strange that it has not figured by any well-known name in ancient Hindu or Buddhist literature, nor has been mentioned by any of the Chinese pilgrims who visited Champa and the vicinity. It appears that the monastery and stupa were contemporary with, or slightly earlier than the earliest of the monasteries and stupas at Nalanda; but, unlike the latter, did not continue to flourish in the later days.
Sultanganj as a Tourist Destination
A large number of pilgrims who are on way to the Shiva Temple at Deoghar in Jharkhand, visit the banks of the Ganga at Sultanganj, which thus becomes a popular tourist destination during the monsoons. On other auspicious days like the regular Purnimas (full-moon), the banks of the Ganga witness a flurry of visitors for ritual bath. The route from Sultanganj to Deoghar is roughly 110 km out of which around 100 km route lies in Bihar out of which around 16 km lies in Bhagalpur district, 26 km in Munger district and rest is in Banka. Special arrangements are made by the administration to ensure safety & security along with other basic facilities for the pilgrims. The town however lacks good hotels with modern amenities and the pilgrims prefer to stay along in dharmashalas or in camps temporarily constructed during the melas. An Inspection Bungalow is available for stay with two rooms about a kilometre after Sultanganj on the road towards Munger, which is generally used by government officials on transit.
|Sunset time, Jahngira Village near Sultanganj|
The roads in Sultanganj are quite narrow and pass through the main market which makes them a regular nuisance for any traveller due to constant traffic congestion. A bridge is coming up on the river which would be connecting North and South Bihar with the other end opening in Khagaria district. The new bridge would surely make Sultanganj more accessible for visitors from North Bihar but at the same time increase the congestion in the already bulging traffic load. A new bypass needs to come up to skip the old town which could be developed as a heritage marketplace since it still retains the look and character of the 18th century. New hotels with proper information about the religious and historical sites nearby can alter the potential of Sultanganj as a modern tourist destination. A centre for yoga and meditation can also be considered on the banks of the Ganga to attract like minded pilgrims. The remains at the Ajgaibinath hill and the boulders nearby need to be immediately protected and preserved with information about them available on display in a properly constructed site museum.